Crises or Not, people’s right to information remains in the mid-air!

As of today, the only continent left without a case of Coronavirus-COVID 19 in Antarctica[1]. The economic, social and political focus of the international comity right; from Tokyo to New York and Germany to Jamaica is vested to find an effective way to whitewash the contagious virus. In this time of crucial decision making at the level of government, availability, and disclosure of information to the public becomes preeminent. The current times call for greater transparency and maximum proactive disclosure of information by government departments.

On the other hand, human rights activists and proponents of citizen’s right to information are indicating that the fight against COVID-19 has allowed governments to temper several fundamental human rights by ordering lockdowns, roadblocks, ban on assembly, freedom of Speech and RTI. Since the situation is not marching towards stability; we can’t say that when we are going back on the track. Many examples of human rights abuse are reported like arbitrary detentions in China and India’s BJP’s request on censorship of media reports on Coronavirus. The logic behind this tempering of human rights lies in Article 4 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights [2] which states that:

“In times of public emergency which threatens the life of the nation and the existence of which is officially proclaimed, the States Parties to the present Covenant may take measures derogating from their obligations under the present Covenant to the extent strictly required by the exigencies of the situation, provided that such measures are not inconsistent with their other obligations under international law and do not involve discrimination solely on the ground of race, color, gender, language, religion or social origin” 

It means that when a country declares a public emergency, it can take measures that restrict particular fundamental rights. Many countries like Italy, Spain, UK, Canada, India, and Mexico, etc. have altered their right to information laws (RTI/ATI/FOI) or have put on hold the current flow of information to its citizens[3]. On the other hand, Pakistan, India and New Zealand have confined the functions of Information Commissions till the next order which leads to delay or changes in the timeframe of disposal of complaints. However, during the current crisis, the need for voluntary or proactive disclosure of public information becomes crucial. Because Governments are receiving donations and grants for strategizing against COVID 19, whereas the people, taxpayers have a justiciable right to know about the details of expenditures.  

PTI led government in Pakistan has also taken several initiatives to take common people in confidence like regular media talks by Prime Minister Imran Khan, the establishment of coordination unit, the establishment of Parliamentary Committee and what not. How good it will be; if after this pandemic pass, the government in Pakistan continue the practice of keeping the public in a loop without exceptions, sharing the steps taken to deal with every challenge, proactively sharing the details about the utilization of public funds and most importantly keep on inquiring reports public without hesitation? Why the government needs a crisis like a difficult situation to become temporarily open? Article 19-A of Constitution of Islamic Republic of Pakistan, national and sub-national laws of RTI have been calling for the proactive disclosure of information since 2013. Not just in Pakistan but globally; crises or not, people’s right to information remains in the mid-air!

Blog Post by: Moonus Kayinat Zahra| Project Manager– CPDI

 


[1] One continent remains untouched by the coronavirus: Antarctica, article In Washington Post 
https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/2020/03/24/one-continent-remains-untouched-by-coronavirus-antarctica/

[2] International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights; https://www.ohchr.org/en/professionalinterest/pages/ccpr.aspx 

[3] COVID-19 Update: Tracking Changes to Right to Information Laws; 
https://www.law-democracy.org/live/covid-19-update-tracking-changes-to-right-to-information-laws/ 

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